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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah head coach Lynne Roberts said her team had nothing to lose playing Stanford before the two teams tipped off Sunday afternoon at the Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas in the Pac-12 women's basketball tournament championship game.
Just being in the game was worth the opportunity alone.
After winning only five games the previous season, even winning a game in the conference tournament a year later was a worthy victory. Getting to the conference championship — the program's first — was beyond actual expectations.
"Getting to this game was huge," Roberts said Sunday night. "It really was, and it put us on a stage that we haven't been on."
So when Utah tied up the game in the third quarter after erasing a one-time 12-point lead by the Cardinal, the moment was real — Utah played like it expected to win.
But Stanford is the reigning national champions for a reason. The Cardinal never worried and quickly went to work while locking in on defense. Stanford used a series of runs in the third quarter to build up an 11-point lead, and then closed out the game on a 21-3 run to come away with a 73-48 victory to claim the Pac-12 title.
"This game doesn't define our season. I'm certainly proud that we were here," Roberts said. "Disappointed we lost. But our season's not over, so I'm excited about the NCAA Tournament and what this group — we'll get a week and a half to get healthy; we're pretty banged up.
"Not the outcome we wanted, but certainly a great achievement to play in this game. We want to play in this game again more times in the future."
Stanford made shot after shot on one end and locked down Utah on the other. The Utes finished the championship game making only one of its last 12 shot attempts on a stout defensive effort by the Cardinal. Utah, to a point, helped Stanford out and stopped attacked like they had in the first half where they played with nothing to lose.
"I think at the beginning we were playing a little more fearlessly," guard Dru Gylten. "I think that was our mentality going in is they had to stop us. That's what we've been saying all season. So we were hitting 3s, we were getting those inside/out, and we were getting defensive stops. I think after halftime we just missed the shots we usually take and then we kept turning it over.
"That's just Stanford; that's what they do best is make you pay for those. I think after halftime that's kind of what fell apart for us was the turnovers and missed shots."
Utah only had five turnovers in the second half, but any turnover at that point was a missed opportunity to cut into Stanford's lead and was magnified when the Cardinal couldn't miss on offense.
Haley Jones led Stanford with 19 points, six rebounds and four assists, and she was joined in double-digit scoring by Cameron Brink, who added 16 points and four rebounds, and Lexie Hull finished with 15 points, five rebounds and three assists in the win.
Utah's Brynna Maxwell finished with a team-high 16 points, including three of the team's eight 3-pointers in the loss. Maxwell hit a top-of-the-key 3-pointer and the and-one free throw to give Utah hope at the end of the third quarter, but Stanford was not going to be denied with only 10 minutes to glory.
Utes forward Dasia Young was integral in helping her team tie up the game in the third quarter by scoring 9 straight points to closeout the first half. Young had two key 3-pointers and went 3 of 4 from the free-throw line.
Stanford exposed the absence of Utah's Peyton McFarland, who suffered a serious knee injury in the quarterfinal round of the tournament, leaving the Cardinal with an easier opportunity to outscore Utah 40-12 in the post.
A win Sunday afternoon, according to the ESPN broadcast, could have bumped the Utes up to the No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament based on recent bracketology predictions. Coming into the conference tournament, Utah hovered around the No. 8 or No. 9 seed for several weeks.
"I think we should be in the upper half," Robert said. "To compete in this conference, to have 20 wins — I don't like to toot our own horn, as they say, but I think we should be at least a 7 seed; I really do. Who we have competed against, game in, game out, I think we've earned that, for sure. Just in terms of our NET ranking as well."
The Utes will have a week to rest up as it awaits where it will land on Selection Sunday on March 13 at 6 p.m. MST on ESPN.